Easily one of this past Halloween’s hidden gems, oldsoundroom’s limited production of October in the Chair and Other Fragile Things is a
wonderful homage to Neil Gaiman’s witty and charismatic dark humor. Spun from five of Mr. Gaiman’s many spirited works, this staging is brilliantly imbued with the originality and fantasy that his tales are regarded for. Five actors and twenty-five characters seems like a real humdinger to follow, but nothing about the performances are overplayed or cliché. The players carefully craft a bewitching grip that rubs sorrow, laughter, and unease from its audiences. Through exceptional acting, design, and creativity, they draw from deep within, the magic and mystery of childhoods long forgotten.
At the very core of this play it is a simple tribute to classical fireside storytelling. On the primal stage of the calendrical spirits, October presides as the master of ceremonies where we are entertained with five separate and delightfully wicked stories. It is a realm of customs and rivalries which we do not yet understand, but of which we are steadily made aware. The multitalented acting of oldsoundroom’s cast breathes vigor into the characters, transforming them right before our eyes with only a minimalistic change of wardrobe. It is refreshing to watch such a dedicated troupe morph flawlessly between boozers in a dingy Irish café, caricatures in a gleeful town of Arkansas, and screwballs in an absurd British writer’s household.
So much of the production’s magic can also be traced to its art, lighting, and sound direction. The play makes use of ordinary objects, such as travel trunks, ketchup, and pumpkins, to great effect. It leads the audience using just enough detail to flirt with its imagination at the cusp. There is a careful balance of spotlighting and shadow, the advent and absence of props, and the pure whimsy of sound, which floods the corners of unreality. A real high point of this effect takes place during the telling of the second story, in which Harlequin (Jackson Moran) mimes the carving of his heart from his chest in time to the sawing of a pumpkin. Though the act would no doubt be gruesome to behold, it is instead made light and playful. It’s a small quirk, but greatly reflects the fanciful character of the playwright.
There is a thoughtful and captivating progression to the play, despite the naturally disjointed framework of the storytelling narrative. It begins with an overcast and creeping subject of dread; a tenebrous story about an old deathly woman served with a classical impression of horror. However, as the performance advances, the horror gradually wanes and is overtaken by lighthearted comedy; the unrequited love of the whimsical and pitiable Harlequin, the frantic and farcical plight of a writer who has lost momentum in “classical literature,” and the misfortune of the motley Epicurean Club are all anecdotes that relapse our aversion to the uncanny. In the final act, the audience is replanted in the bleakness of reality with the tale of the young boy who runs from home.
October in the Chair and Other Fragile Things offers a performance that tickles the earliest strings of our imagination. Although many will have missed this very limited production, I urge you all to look forward to great things in the future of oldsoundroom.
October in the Chair and Other Fragile Things – by oldsoundroom
Produced by Jennifer Harrison Newman and oldsoundroom, Directed and scored by Michael McQuilken, Stage management by Catherine Costanzo, House management by Xaq Webb, Production design by Elizabeth Barrett Groth, Lighting by Solomon Weisbard, Masks and puppets by Michael McQuilken and Elizabeth Barrett Groth, clothing donated by NICHOLAS K. At The American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street, Manhattan, www.oldsoundroom.com, Through Nov 2. Running Time: 90 min